It was no less an authority than the apostle Paul who originally compared the Christian life to running in a race.
This was one of his favorite metaphors. As he said to the Corinthians, "All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win." Actually, Paul may be getting us off to a false start here, for as most runners realize, it's not about winning or competing. In middle and later life, most of us have no intention of winning a marathon, the satisfaction comes in simply being in the race, and completing it. I'm not sure that victory was Paul's point either.
We find in the letter to the Hebrews a scene which recalls the finish of a Greek marathon. As the leading runners enter the stadium, the crowd rises with one voice to cheer them on. "With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too should throw off everything that hinders us, and keep running steadily in the race we have started." This is not so much a lesson in winning, but in completing what one has started.
"That's how we all should run," said the writer of Hebrews, "throwing off every obstacle that hinders us ... and keep running steadily in the race we have started."
In a real sense, all of us are long distance runners. Whether we travel from city to city or whether our journeys are largely those of the mind, we always seem to be off and running. That's why the whole region of the country, centering around New York City, where I live and run, is often referred to as the "fast track." For many who live in this region, life seems to proceed at a faster pace than it does elsewhere. Even if one chooses a life that is largely sedentary, still time itself keeps on rushing by, and the years of our life pass like the wind. The question is whether in our running we are going around and around in circles, or whether there is a sense of direction and purpose. It's the repetition of the merely routine that truly tires and fatigues my spirit. What about you?
Cleaning an apartment, for example, when you feel that next week at exactly the same time you'll have to clean it all over again. Or paying the bills, knowing that next month, at about the same date, you'll have to pay them again. Or going to work on a gray Monday morning, when work has lost its meaning and you know that once again you'll have to face the same dreary tasks, and keep on facing them until you retire. Or filing your income taxes, and knowing, that next year, on April 15, you'll be filing them all over again, and the only difference is, you'll probably arrive at that point in the future owing more. And you will not have arrived at the finish, but only another marker along the road in a race that never ends.
We are all caught up in some activities that proceed without apparent purpose or direction, so that life seems more like a treadmill than a marathon.
Like any great story, a road race has a beginning, a middle and an end. And at the end there's the cheering crowd and the welcome and congratulations of family and friends when you finish. So in the life of faith, the drama unfolds step·by·step. From birth to death, one draws closer and closer to the finish, nearer and nearer to that moment of fulfillment when one enters the very presence of God.
Moreover, in a road race, there's a sense of pace and timing, a sense of stewardship and strategy as you allow your body to run as fast as it can, but not so fast that you burn yourself out. It was this danger that St. Paul had in mind when he cautioned the Christians of Corinth to keep "the body in subjection." I read this phrase not in a narrow, moralistic sense, as though we must constantly keep a tight reign on our passions and emotions, but rather I read those words as a runner would. As Paul himself puts it, we're not just out there running around like chickens with our heads cut off, or burning strength and energy aimlessly like a boxer fanning his fists in the wind. We are "running to finish the race we have started."
A long distance race requires careful stewardship of one's strength. And so in this race we call our lives, there is an appropriate speed and pace for each one of us, given our stage and status in life. In our youth we have energy and ability seemingly to fly on wings like eagles. There's a time in our lives when almost anything seems possible. In middle age there's a slowing of the pace, a mellowing of the spirit, and we must slow down to a mere run. And then in old age, when we can neither fly nor run, nevertheless, God gives us the strength to walk.